In 1903, the back room of the Gresham Post Office served as Gresham’s first public reading room.
By 1908, the library collection reached approximately 400 volumes, and the Gresham community began fundraising for the construction of a dedicated library building. The Gresham Library Association purchased property at the corner of North Main Avenue and Fourth Street in Gresham for $1900.
With financial support from the Library Association of Portland, the Gresham community raised approximately half of the necessary funds to construct the building, making the project eligible for support from Andrew Carnegie. One of the wealthiest people in the United States at the time, Carnegie dedicated a large part of his fortune to the construction of libraries across the country. The Gresham Library was one of thirty-one Carnegie libraries built in Oregon.
Due to this monetary contribution, the Gresham Library Association was able to select young architect Folger Johnson to design the building. A newcomer to Portland and a recent graduate of Columbia University, Johnson went on to an illustrious forty-year career, during which he designed numerous buildings that are now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Gresham Library, which Johnson designed in the English Tudor Revival style, is unique among Carnegie libraries in the Portland area, most of which were colonnaded Neoclassical structures.
Construction began in 1912, and the building was dedicated and opened in 1913. Enthusiasm for the new library began strong and continued to grow; in 1914, the Oregonian pronounced the Gresham Library the “educational, civic and social center of Gresham.” The library hosted club meetings, story hours, and lectures, growing along with the city it served, until rapid urban growth in the 1970s and 1980s finally outpaced the capacity of the small community library. In 1988, Multnomah County Library purchased land at 3rd and Miller, a block from the old library, and a new, larger structure was built there the following year. On December 30, 1989, up to 500 volunteers formed a human chain between the old and new libraries to finish moving the books in time for the new library’s dedication on January 7, 1990. Today’s Gresham Library features elements that honor its predecessor, such as a series of small leaded-glass windows with designs based on publishers’ imprints of the 1400s through the early 1900s.
The Gresham Historical Society began fundraising to purchase the old library almost as soon as plans began to vacate it. With staggering community support, the historical society was able to purchase the building and subsequently embarked on extensive renovations to turn it into a museum. Generous bequests from longtime Executive Director Pat Stone and board member Jack Malcolm funded another significant round of renovations in 2012. Today the building appears much as it did when it opened in 1913. The Gresham Carnegie Library is now on the National Register of Historic Places and will be protected for generations to come.